The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste

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Set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King portrays the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.

✚ “Early on in The Shadow King I had to google “Italian invasion of Ethiopia 1930s” proving yet again my historical knowledge is slightly lacking. It was such an unexpected event and I wasn’t sure if it was even real (nearly as bad as when I was teacher aiding in a Year 12 English class and learned about the Warsaw ghetto thanks to the students reading The Pianist) .

“Well yep the invasion sure was real and Maaza Mengiste takes you to the absolute heart of it. This book was at times terrifying, at times exhilarating and then a lot of the time it was just very sad. There was little joy and not much relief from the absolute onslaught of overwhelming events.

“Reading the note from the author at the end about her personal connection to the story was shocking. I read this while it was longlisted and was rapt to see it on the shortlist. At the time of writing this I’ve read no other shortlisters, but I’ll be very surprised to read one that tops this.” – Suzy

To be in the presence of our emperor is to stand before the sun. You must respect his power to give you life and to burn you alive.

✚ “Stories of female contributions to war efforts are few and far between. Usually the women are carers or victims or fictional superwomen. The Shadow King is different. It tells the story of Hirut, a young Ethiopian woman who goes from lowly servant to proud warrior during the 1935 Italian invasion.

“The story has a base in the author’s own family history and this attachment is obvious in the realistic portrayal of the characters and their war-time experiences. At no time did they seem over-written, and the war activities had the right measure of atrocity and hopefulness. Although I knew nothing of this conflict prior to reading this book, I was quickly lured into this story and captivated throughout.

“Hirut, an orphan seeking meaning in life, seemed to me a symbol of many people, many cultures, many communities and though I was left feeling shocked, I was also satisfied at the completeness of the story.” – Rachel

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Published 2019
W W Norton Company
448 pages

The New Wilderness – Diane Cook

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A group of strangers escape a polluted city and learn to live in the wild as part of a study 

✚ “This dystopian-type novel features a polluted and over populated city and a location which is the only place in which nature still exists: the Wilderness State. A group of people, led by Bea and her daughter Agnes, live a nomadic life there as part of a nameless study.

“There are a lot of topical themes raised in this book, about environmental concern, our relationship with nature, social change, mother-daughter relationships, what our children will inherit from us, and back-to-basics survival. Plot markers revealed early on were portrayed with a no-nonsense sensibility and brutal acceptance about life and death in a harsh environment.

“However it soon become apparent that there were many holes in the plot, too many to mention here. Plus I felt let down by the characterisation. Stereotyping and dramatisation led to unbelievable interactions and I just couldn’t relate to the characters, nor accept some of the actions they took. I felt completely distant from the story about half way through and only finished the book because I had to for Bookerthon.” – Rachel

 

✚ “As we get to the end of 2020 this book seemed strangely prophetic – the storyline felt appropriate for the time in which we are currently living. And with climate change being such a pressing societal issue it seemed inevitable that at least one of the shortlisted books would be dealing with it.
Unfortunately I went into The New Wilderness with two absolutely stunning novels as benchmarks. Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood is dystopian fiction at its scary and nuanced best, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy takes the reader on an absolutely desperate journey alongside a father and son with the world around them in tatters. 
 
“The New Wilderness is in the same genre but felt different to these two books. I think it was because I felt slightly removed from what was happening in The New Wilderness. Everything was laid out quite clearly so it didn’t feel like there was much room for the reader’s interpretation. Therefore I didn’t become as invested in the characters or their lives as I would have liked.
“In saying that, it was still interesting reading about another author’s terrifying take on humanity’s possible future.” – Suzy

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Published 2020
Harper
416 pages

Burnt Sugar – Avni Doshi

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A story of love and betrayal between a woman and her mother. 

✚ “Though dementia is the vehicle for the plot, the real story in Burnt Sugar is the toxic co-dependent relationship between Tara and her daughter Antara. Despite Antara’s sense of injustice at her mother’s less than acceptable parenting, she still feels responsible for her care when she begins losing her memory. Now all Antara has of her past is her own memory, which in Doshi’s unsentimental writing style, is not totally reliable in itself. For this reason Antara is never able to reconcile her un-challenged thoughts and feelings and therefore unable to forgive or accept her mother’s wild behaviour: in the commune; with various men; begging on the street.

“It is a story that starts of slowly but quickly gathers momentum until the pages of toxicity between mother and daughter cannot be put down. It’s a bit like watching a train wreck, horrifying but you know you won’t look away. It is addictive and compelling and a truthful, unglamorous account of love, memory and dependency. If you appreciate literary studies of human nature, try this one out.” – Rachel

✚ “I had been trying to come up with the word that best describes Burnt Sugar and lo and behold there it is on the cover as Fatima Bhutto calls it: “taut, unsettling, ferocious”. I would agree with all three, but especially ‘unsettling’. It wasn’t a book I was compelled to pick up to find out what was happening next as it meant I would have to experience a certain level of discomfort and yes feel unsettled. It’s a real slow-burner of a book especially compared to The Shadow King.

“Antara was a distinctive female character who revealed so much about herself I was left feeling like I was encroaching too much on her life. I almost feel relieved that I’ve finished it if that makes sense? Amazing writing and I would not be disappointed at all if this one took the Booker win.” –Suzy

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Published 2020
Hamish Hamilton
240 pages

Real Life – Brandon Taylor

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A biochemistry student’s experiences of life as a gay, black man captured over one weekend

✚ “What started off as a fairly innocuous read soon became anything but. Reading Real Life after Burnt Sugar and The Shadow King I was more than ready for some shallow banter between some smart American twenty-somethings, however the eventual brutality beneath the happy accomplished veneer of the characters often made me feel sick.

“The experience of being an ‘other’ was conveyed in such a raw and authentic way made me reflect on the times where I might have ‘othered’ people without realising. This was another very uncomfortable read with not much breathing room for the reader.

“I thoroughly enjoyed this book and so far the shortlisted books have been amazing.” – Suzy

‘Yes, your deficiencies. I won’t say what they are. You already know. You come from a challenging background. It is unfortunate, but it is how it is.’

✚ “Wallace is a black, gay biochemistry student from Alabama who is simply trying to get ahead in his studies and find his place in a white, straight dominated world. But as he breeds nematodes in the lab and teeters on the edge of friendships he must endure a raft of prejudices, both intentional and inherent.

“In Real Life, one weekend of Wallace’s life is examined, with conversations, dinner parties, relationships and human interactions studied microscopically. What’s discovered is not just brutal honesty but an exacting portrayal of intimacy, sexuality, violence and loneliness. What’s more the weekend is replayed in a perfectly paced, delicate and nuanced writing style.

“There is no part of this book that is unbelievable, it really is a story about one person’s real life. I felt like I was right there, in every scene, observing and absorbing the lives of this group of friends. A moving experience that I sometimes hated and sometimes loved but always respected.” – Rachel

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Published 2020
Riverhead Books
329 pages

Born A Crime – Trevor Noah

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Chosen by Jodie

The memoir of one man’s coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed.

✚ “Born a Crime is the true story of a South African boy who starts his life under Apartheid and who feels the effects of the regime throughout his formative years. His childhood is filled with extraordinary events, an incredible mother and an abusive stepfather. Despite the consequences of these factors, the story is one of resilience, especially when one doesn’t have the resources to advance themselves. There were many people in the book who did not thrive, but Trevor’s mother wanted to show her son a different world and a different way of living. She was unique for her time and place; she was a critical thinker who knew how to make the best of situations. Not only was the book entertaining but witty too and I would highly recommend it. ” – Jodie

✚ “I learned a lot reading Born A Crime. I thought the mother was an incredible rock for her son throughout their lives under apartheid. What astounded me was how Trevor lived in no man’s land constantly – not considered black enough to be black or white enough to be white, nor brown enough to be coloured. Trevor opened my eyes to situations I wasn’t aware of before hand. For example I had always thought of the South Arican slums as a mass, not as individual people. But they have hierarchies, and dreams and desires. But Trevor did not want to be a victim and his mother was always educating him even when he didn’t realise; even when he was getting a hiding.” – Becks

✚ “Trevor Noah definitely has an interesting story to tell. However I don’t think his focus was in the right spot. His mother was a remarkable women and a snippet of some of the horrors she endures are offered at the beginning of the book. But it’s not until the end that those stories come to light, all the pages in-between filled with Noah’s petty crimes and childhood antics. This made Noah seem self-absorbed – the story should have been hers not his. Plus the lack of plot continuity created a stop-start effect that interrupted my interest in the story.” – Rachel

✚ “I enjoyed Born A Crime, finding it entertaining and informative at the same time. For me it was a memoir that held a good balance between personal anecdote, social-cultural commentary and historical insight into South Africa and apartheid. I think it was blended well with humour and a little irreverance. I was uplifted by a sense of hopefulness and admiration about the author’s Mum and Trevor Noah himself. It is a read I’ll recommend to others and my kids when they are a little older. A new (to me) view on apartheid and race relations. Humbling” – Sonya

✚ “This story of a South African childhood was witty as well as educational. Trevor dealt with situations that most children would never experience with humour and directness. The book’s chapters were sectioned by themes. It did sometimes feel disjointed with the abrupt stop-start of the themes but it was an interesting way to structure the book, rather than the traditional chronological presentation. I thoroughly enjoyed this story and would happily recommend it to a friend.” – Jo

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Published 2016
Doubleday Canada
289 pages

Driving To Treblinka – Diana Wichtel

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Chosen by Sonya

A New Zealand woman traces her father’s World War II history and discovers a heartbreaking truth.

✚ “Driving To Treblinka is a memoir by New Zealand journalist Diana Wichtel. In it she seeks to redeem the past, a past in which she did not truly know her father Ben, nor his sufferings trying to evade the Nazis in German-controlled Poland.

“The biographical book opens with lines from her father’s autopsy report, so it is clear from the outset that there will be no happy reunion. Each chapter starts this way, with a quote from a report, or official document that slowly reveals her father’s demise.

“The author’s life is highly detailed throughout. Her life with her father in Canada, her years without him in New Zealand, the years spent wondering, the years spent searching, the years spent guilt-stricken, agonising over her own culpability.

“Also highly detailed are the discoveries about her father’s life, including those discovered on the road to Treblinka, an extermination camp. It’s fair to say these revelations are moving, sad, even distressing, with intimate accounts of how holocaust atrocities affected not only Ben but his extended family members for the rest of their lives.

“Thematically Wichtel has investigated how secrets and silence can damage families. She makes it clear that not being told the truth created more damage than the reality she was being shielded from ever could.

There are a million reasons why we don’t talk about the truth and one of those is because the mother cries.

“There is hope too, loving family bonds and resolve to offset the secrets but the story remains honest, honouring her father, rather than all tied up like a fictional story.

✚ “Driving to Treblinka is a fresh take on what we all thought we knew about the Holocaust. Its impact is in the study of the power of truth – the manipulation of truth – and the layers of degradation that remain secret. Yet after all these years, those affected still hope for a different view of the world.” – Sonya

✚ “A page-turner that moves, educates, and captivates via the study of the social repercussions of events, – how people react and change in response to an event, and how that effect ripples down through families. When these investigations are undertaken honestly the result is as this book is, heart wrenchingly affecting.” – Rachel

✚ “I really enjoyed this book and was emotionally invested throughout. It is a harrowing, eye-opening account of how trauma is passed down through generations. It investigates what is required to counter this persecution. I have not cried over a book in many years, but this was heartbreaking.” – Jo

✚ “The theme of remembrance resonated from this book for me. At the heart of it, we all want to be remembered and loved. Yet our histories extend beyond our own lives and what we carry forward affects how we act and how we are remembered.” – Becks

✚ “When you didn’t think there were any more war stories to be heard, something like this surprises you. It demonstrated that the byproduct of one person’s experience lasts longer than they do.” – Jodie

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Published 2017
Awa Press
278 pages

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa

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Chosen by Jo

On an unnamed island, people’s memories are slowly deleted by the controlling authority, the Memory Police.

✚ “Censorship and authoritarian surveillance are at the thematic heart of this novel. Items that represent art, cultural identity and independent thought are slowly “disappeared” and the population of the unnamed island are forced to forget items and all memories associated with them. Whether the Memory Police have thought control or are simply the enforcers of the rules is unclear but just their existence instills dread and fear in the reader. There are many words that accurately describe the book: Orwellian, dystopian, existential, science fiction.

“Of course there is a resistance, people who do not forget. They hide in friend’s basements or feign docility whenever the Memory Police pass. The unnamed narrator of the book has such a boarder – a book editor named R. He spends his time assessing the narrator’s half written manuscript and reintroducing her to items that no longer exist.

“The manuscript runs a parallel story of censorship, of a typist with no voice who is held hostage and afraid to escape when given the opportunity. Just as the typist’s experience seems to come to life in this book, the author Yoko Ogawa warns us that the contents of her book can be found in real life: tyranny, passivity as a survival instinct, but also opportunity for resistance.

“Written in 1994 and translated into English in 2019, the novel has a timeless quality that had us bookclubbers drawing references to totalitarian states of many ages from deep in the past to modern day. Of added comparison was the current state of the world, living with Covid and the ‘acceptable’ level of control required to manage it.

But as things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner, too, diluted somehow. I suppose that kept things in balance.

✚ “For something so unique and different, The Memory Police was surprisingly easy to read. I haven’t read anything like this before and enjoyed the storyline. Once I researched it I found I liked it even more – it’s such a tragic tale! The simplistic style of writing allowed me the room to process the story and themes themselves rather than spending time trying to interpret the text.” – Jo

✚ “I loved The Memory Police for its relevance. This is not a book written purely for entertainment value, it has an important message about the danger of tyranny and how elimination of free thought is the surest way to suck the life out of people. Its Kafkaesque style produced many parallels to the Covid world in which we are living today and there were layers and layers of close-to-home meaning. For something written 25 years ago to be so relevant today is a sure sign of class.” – Rachel

✚ I liked The Memory Police a lot, which is surprising to me in that I don’t normally enjoy ‘odd’ books such as this. I liken the reading of it to studying a Salvador Dali painting. Strange, a little uncomfortable, intriguing. The book was literary surrealism, painted beautifully. I found the writing style easy to read, and the imagery clear in my head. I felt drawn in by the characters. I liked them. I knew them; even though they were nameless. So yes, it was a thumbs up from me. Weird, uncomfortable but beautiful too.” – Sonya

✚ “Though initially intriguing, The Memory Police became repetitive for me. The island’s residents would love something, it would disappear, they would learn to live without it, the Memory Police would take some kind of action related to the “disappeared” item and then the cycle would start again. Overall I felt there were too many unanswered questions to make it memorable.”– Jodie

✚ “The Memory Police was written in 1994, yet its focus on the effects of thought control seem to be extremely topical right now. The author reminds us that free thinkers are always the first ones silenced but they must have their voice to fight against power hungry leaders. – Becks

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Published 1994
Kondansha
274 pages

Rules of Civility – Amor Towles

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Chosen by Rachel

Katey Kontent tells the story of when, in 1937, she and friend Eve met Tinker Grey in a New York jazz bar

✚ “It may have been written in 2011 but Rules of Civility has all the atmosphere and stylistic charm of the period in which it is set: 1930s New York. Jazz bars, martinis, sports cars, Dickens and beautiful people make for captivating reading.

“It would at first appear that the presence of wealthy benefactors and young socialites parallels with those other famous New York novels Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Great Gatsby. But this is where the plot commonalities end and in fact Towles has done well to not borrow from these same era tales.

The narrator Katy Kontent was born Katya, the daughter of a Russian immigrant. She uses her wit and charm to work her way up the both corporate and social ladders and make the most of every opportunity presented to her. Caught up in a life of oysters and cocktails she meets interesting characters with unusual names – Dicky, Bucky, Bitsy, Generous. Everyone is emotionally charged with a habit of analysing and voicing their inner most thoughts in dramatic style.

Most of us shell our days like peanuts. One in a thousand can look at the world with amazement. I don’t mean gawking at the Chrysler Building. I’m talking about the wing of a dragonfly. The tale of the shoeshine. Walking through an unsullied hour with an unsullied heart.

“One night at the novel’s outset Katey and her friend Eve meet Tinker Grey, a stranger in a bar. His seemingly privileged and sophisticated lifestyle is a draw card to both the girls, and it’s not long before their’ lives become linked through a series of dramatic and unforeseen circumstances.

“The result is a snappy and glamorous period piece full of friendships and covert romance that you can’t help but picture in black and white. The development of both the plot and characters is full and fast paced and constantly throws surprises at you.

The Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company & Conversation was a document written in 1595 and made known later by George Washington. It set out 110 guidelines on how to act in a civilised manner. They are actioned throughout the book, by characters eager to reinvent themselves in high society, and are listed in full as a afterword. They make interesting reading and are used effectively to unite the themes and plot lines.”

68th: Go not thither, where you know not, whether you shall be welcome or not. Give not advice without being asked and when desired do it briefly.

“The bookclubbers agreed this was one of those literary gems, rarely found, and an absolute pleasure to read.”

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Published 2011
Viking
335 pages

American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins

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Chosen by Becks

Mexican Lydia and her son Luca are on the run from Cartel hitmen.

✚ “The interesting part of American Dirt is not only the content, but how the content was received.

“Before it was finished several publishing houses were in a bidding war over publication rights. This hype resulted in the book making all sorts of best-sellers lists. It featured in Oprah’s bookclub, had movie rights secured and was even described as a modern day Grapes of Wrath.

“But perhaps there was an excess of hype, because at the same time it was largely criticised, and called “trauma porn,” with both Mexican and American writers pointing out the American author’s many inconsistencies and errors.

“The book is a migrant drama in which Lydia Perez must flee Acapulco with her eight-year-old son Luca after the rest of her family is murdered by Cartel hitmen. She heads north in the hope of making a safe border crossing to live a free life on American dirt.

“This had all the ingredients to produce a great read but unfortunately it fell a little flat for the freerange bookclubbers. We agreed it began as a page turner, but the further into the book we got, the more the people and situations became cliched. We quickly tired of the characters’ uncanny luck in the face of dangers that do take people’s lives in the real world. The narration, while from the Mexican woman’s POV, felt more like an outsider’s view looking in rather than a sense that the plot was being lived.

“It was only at our bookclub meet with some research from Becks that we discovered the controversy on the book. Online comments ranged from calling the author a racist for attempting to write about Latin issues, through to the cry of censorship. We were not judging Cummins from a moral standpoint, we were not discussing whether she had the right to write the book, but we did  comment on how the lack of depth affected the believability of the plot and the characters, and therefore the enjoyment of the book.

“Controversy aside, we compared American Dirt to a Hollywood-style, block buster. Don’t get too caught up in the why and the how and you’ll be able to enjoy it as fast-paced holiday read.”

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Published 2020
Flatiron Books
400 pages

Normal People – Sally Rooney

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Chosen by Jodie

Marianne and Connell  struggle to define themselves in their on-again, off-again relationship

✚ “Normal People follows the lives and  relationship of Irish students Connell and Marianne. Born to different social classes, the two experience fluctuating power struggles and divisions. Their place in society has framed how they see themselves, but the crises and challenges they experience together and as individuals helps them develop their true selves.

“The spotlight on the two protagonists is bright – the 28-year old author has an obvious understanding of the troubles and influences in a young adult’s live, yet has made them appealing to all generations. Though the couple’s relationship is rocky, and on-again, off-again, it is the only constant in the book, therefore endearing them to the reader and encouraging us to be a part of the journey.

All these years, they’ve been like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions.

“Around them are a number of interesting antagonists who indulge in unkindness, violence, and in off-limit sexual deviancy. They are often stereotypical but are examples found in real life class struggles so never feel cliched. The author uses Marianne’s complex history to explore the detrimental effects of poor behaviour on an individual’s ability to navigate life. And how normalising chauvinistic behaviour can become ingrained in social attitudes.

“But Marianne’s relationship with Connell counters these by demonstrating that such trends do not need to define every relationship. For theirs is one that involves deep conversations and connection and beautiful sex. It does also, however, feature misunderstandings and complications that compound the characters’ insecurities but these add to the intrigue and desperation of the story.

“All the bookclubbers appreciated the clearly beautiful and clever writing style, but had different experiences in the impact the book had upon them. It is not plot heavy so a connection to Marianne and Connell is key to enjoyment of the book.”

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Published 2019
Hogarth Publishing
273 pages